If you are like most women you value the precious time you have to care of yourself. So when you set aside that 30 or 60 minutes to exercise you want to be certain the time you spend is effective and will truly change your body for the better. You don’t want to waste your opportunity flailing around or doing junk cardio.
The best movements women can do to get strong and look amazing are compound (involving multiple joints and muscles) and functional. The more muscles you move the more you stimulate your heart and metabolism. Performing functional movement strengthens your body in a way that carries over into the things do in everyday life. Isolation exercises are fine for adding strength to specific areas that need work. However, functional compound movements should be the front and center in your exercise program if your goals are to lose fat and get stronger.
I have put together my short list of exercises that will do the most to change your body and make you strong in ways that count. I do them daily and include them in the programs of my clients as much as possible. If you are not doing these movements then please learn them now! If you are including them in your training then look into trying variations and be sure you are progressing your weights to provide enough overload to stimulate change.
The Squat. The squat is on every good trainers list because it has so many amazing benefits for your body. Did you know the squat uses over 300 muscles? Some of the most important are your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back muscles, core, and lats (mid-back). Doing sets of squats will not only make you strong. It will raise your heart rate providing cardiovascular conditioning and metabolic stimulus for fat loss. Squats are also great for improving core strength and balance. And what movement could be more functional?
The squat can be done almost anywhere with or without weights. Beginners should start with a box squat and advanced lifters should work with weighted squats using tempo and progressive overload. Before you get your squat on be sure you get some training to ensure your form is on point.
The Pull-up. No, it's not impossible! Yes, it will take a lot of work. But it is so worth it. This movement will strengthen your upper back and arm muscles in way no other exercise can. The pull-up is also functional. It gives us the ability to lift our bodies up and over things. You not only gain functional strength with a pull-up. You gain pride and self confidence. Some of my most memorable coaching sessions have been sharing the moment my client got her first pull-up!
So how do you go from where you are now to a pull-up? Start small and with the basics. Build your upper body muscles with weighted rows and bicep curls. Strengthen your core with planks. Work on being able to hang from an overhead bar. Be consistent and persistent!
The Deadlift. This exercise suffers a bad rap. Part of it may be having the word "dead" in it's name. Part of it may be too much bad publicity from people hurting themselves doing it incorrectly. This is unfortunate because the deadlift can make your body amazing. The deadlift works the back of your body or posterior chain. In particular, the movement imparts strength to your hamstrings, glutes, hips, and muscles in your spine. The deadlift is very functional in terms of teaching you how to lift heavy things off the floor WITHOUT hurting your back. Like the squat, it uses a large number of muscles and has cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.
To have a benefit the deadlift must be performed with weight and very good form. It is advisable to get quality eyes on coaching when first learning this movement. After you have the form down you can incorporate it into your weekly trainig and add weight slowly.
The Push-up. This movement is the king of upper body movements engaging the muscles in an organic and functional way. The push-up will strengthen your chest, shoulders, upper back, triceps, wrists, and core. So much gets done in this movement! Peforming push-ups will make you break a sweat and raise your heart rate thereby benefiting your whole body and overall fitness. Their functionality is obvious. They give us the strength to get ourselves off the ground. Pretty important stuff if you ask me.
Push-ups can be done at all levels starting with wall push-ups and progressing to weighted and other varieties. Whatever version you do will definitely make you stronger and more fit. So figure it out and do 10 right now!
The Press. This overhead movement is not necessarily on the list of top exercises of most trainers. But here's why it's on mine. We humans frequently find ourselves needing to put things overhead. I don't mean just in sports. I’m talking about daily living activities like putting away groceries or hanging pictures in our homes. If you are "petite" like myself then you have to lift things overhead more often than most other people.
The press will create the strength to do overhead work safely and efficiently. This exercise builds shoulder muscles, core strength, and helps protect from injury. Plus, it just looks really badass when you can hold heavy weights overhead! The press is more an isolation exercise so does not provide a large metabolic stimulus. But, once you can do them correctly in strict form you can learn some more dynamic variations like the push press and push jerk.
Like other movements you need to start with light weight and build up your strength. Correct form is critical. You may find you need to work on mobility first if you cannot press directly over your midline and lock out your elbows. Do a couple sessions with a trainer if you have any doubt or concerns about safety, your mobility, or correct form.
The Plank. The plank is on my list primarily because it is such an excellent core exercise when executed correctly. We spend too much time with our hips bent (aka sitting) in our society so I vastly prefer the plank to sit-ups. The plank strengthens the upper body as well as the abdominals and the deeper stabilizer muscles of the core. It can be very metabolic and aid in fat loss once you are able to hold yourself up for a signficant length of time. Plus, there is quite an array of variations of this exercise to prevent boredom. The plank can be scaled (knee plank) for beginners or made very challenging for the advanced exerciser. Best of all you can do it almost anywhere and at any time.